Tribute - Nusrat's legacy

Magical moments... Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives  

Given how awash we are with copies of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music, given that Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, his nephew, has bagged so many popular music awards, it seems fitting to examine the legacy of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (October 13, 1948 – August 16, 1997) who made the traditional Sufi qawwali yield stunningly new melodies. I wish I could do with words what those sketches of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan by Japanese artists have done with just one or two precise broad strokes: Reveal the exceptional qualities gathered in him, the kindness of his face, his powerfully intelligent mind, and his vocal prowess.

Nusrat Sahib is known mainly for his jaunty fusion music, fast-paced sargam improvisations and disco-beat songs that Peter Gabriel introduced to the Western world through “Shahbaaz Qalandar” (1990). But to know Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan only through the Peter Gabriel collaborations or the Bally Sagoo remixes is to know only a comic strip travesty of a tremendous singer. Listen to his classical Sufi qawwalis — especially Hazrat Khwaja Sang Kheliye Damaar, “Shamso Doha Badaroo Kuja”, “Allah Hoo”, “Data Tera Darbar hai”, “Aaj Rang Harima”, “Mera Piya Ghar Aaya”, “Ya Haiyo Ya Quayuum” — to reach the true musical magic of his expressiveness. His voice marshalled levels and kinds of piety, beauty, energy, and musical ingenuity that went beyond anything I had heard before. The music was majestic, demanding, exciting, and deeply joyful, and it threw classical music into totally unexpected corners.

I felt the need for a book which explained the structure of the classical qawwali — jikr (verbal invocation) and zarb (stroke of the drum or clap) and this I found distilled in Regula Burckhardt Qureshi's book entitled Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali. But mainly I was curious about his subjectivity and I wanted to read a biography of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one that linked the musician to the man, and this I found in the 1992 biography of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, written by Ahmed Aqeel Ruby, translated by Sajjad Haider Malik, published in Pakistan.

Scarcity of material

What is odd is that there is no other biography or book devoted to this extraordinary musician. The Aqeel Ruby biography tells us that Nusrat Sahib absented himself from “the business” of music. He let people trouble him and use him. He opened himself up to commotion. Biographical evidence shows Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to be a singularly kind man, one completely uninhibited about his kindness. We are told he was a Sufi at heart, a non-conformist in what we call “pragmatic matters”; that he divided his income into 21 equal parts and each member of his group got paid the same amount that he took himself, and the same amount was set aside for charity and for family. It is my belief that this Sufi self-unconcern is what kept Nusrat's traditional qawwali innocent of corruption and obsoleteness although he opened himself up the musical corruptions of pop and improvisations like no other classical artist.

Improvisation in classical music is not about the artist spinning out of traditional legacies with the goal of outstripping his/her forerunners but rather about imagining a different sort of affinity with tradition and with teachers of the past. There is no feverish competition with the forerunners; the improvisation is the surprise of something gathered in response to the moment.

Improvisation is more than newness and ingenuity; it is the process by which the truth of tradition becomes an active principle in the mind. But these days, improvisation bows to commercial pressures, and the commercial, in all times, has always destroyed art and communities. Maybe it is fitting to recall that the two fundamental conceptual poles of qawaali are: sama (to listen) and jikr (to mention), and listening here goes beyond consumption or enjoyment. Listening here signifies listening in order to empathise with others and to merge with the sacred in order to relinquish the ego.

There is no doubt that Nusrat gave a significant place to fusion perhaps out of a sense of responsibility to popularise qawwali among the youth. But it seems to me that the innovator Nusrat and the traditionalist Nusrat cannot be divided. He was tremendously good in both these irreconcilable realms but he did not try to have it both ways. I see Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as a traditionalist who saw tradition in terms of an active struggle; in other words, as making room for improvisation.

Remembering the Ustad in the month of his birth anniversary.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 3:57:18 AM |

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